Strange World (2022) Review
COLORFUL AND VIBRANT,
YET NOT EXACTLY A MEMORABLE HIT
Walt Disney’s animated feature films have always been a hot commodity with its viewers as well as its theatrical box office success. For more than two decades, the animated powerhouse studio has been both reinventing itself and looking back to its glory days, harkening to a time when their cartoon motion pictures were celebrated with their signature style. Beginning back in 2009’s Princess and the Frog, the company has looked towards that particular style for some of his more prominent hits, recalling its time-honored traditions of storytelling of princess, animal sidekicks’ characters, and musical songs to sing. This includes films like Tangled in 2010, Frozen in 2013, Moana in 2016, and Frozen II in 2019. That being said, Disney has also branched out into more contemporary fields for the cartoon storytelling feature films, branching out into the superhero variety with Big Hero 6 in 2014, animal character that deal with tolerance / prejudice views in Zootopia in 2016, video game and internet realms with the release of Wreck-It Ralph in 2012 and Ralph Breaks the Internet in 2018, and found cultural representation in the Asian fantasy epic in Raya and the Last Dragon and Latino family drama in Encanto for their 2021 releases. Now, Walt Disney Animation Studios and director Don Hall release the latest animated feature film with the 61st cartoon film titled Strange World. Does the latest offering from the “House of Mouse” stand tall and proud of its recent predecessors or does it fall short from the “golden standards” from one of the most premiere and illustrious animated juggernauts?
In the land of Avalonia, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a man of action and of adventure, famous for his exploration feats and heroic deeds. Leading his son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) into an unconquerable mountain range to see what’s out there for the Clades to seek, explore, preserving the adventurous legacy. When Searcher comes across a special electrical plant call “Pando”, he decides to cut the journey short, watching as his father leave him behind to pursue his quest to conquer the mountain range. Two and half decades later, Avalonia has flourishes and prospered with the help from Pando, which Searcher grows on a farm shared with his wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union), and their teen son, Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who isn’t sure that his family’s agriculture is his future. When Avalonia’s leader, President Mal (Lucy Liu) makes an unexpected appearance of the Clade’s farm, Searcher learns that something is killing the Pando plants, requiring a daring journey beneath the ground….to the source of the issue to see what can be done. The gang soon finds their way to a strange new world beneath the surface of their known world, soon joined by enigmatic gelatinous companion named Splat, who helps the explores figure out what’s going on in this mysterious place where monster and bizarre creatures’ dwell. On their journey, Searcher and friends comes across Jaeger, who’s been stuck down in this subterranean world for decades, newly reunited with his son, who has mixed feelings about the man and the influence on Ethan. However, as group journeys forward, they soon found out that there is more at stake than what they originally presumed, which will shake very foundations of the world itself.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing my words from my review of Encanto….as I’ve stated several times in many of reviews for animated films, I am a big fan of Disney. Always have and always will be. Like many out there, Disney projects (most notable their animated feature films) are deeply rooted in my childhood memories and have been a part of me for much of life, reliving their enchanting tales of whimsical characters, stylish animation, memorable moments, and famously made songs that are tailored made for these cartoon adventures. With over 59 animated movies in their library, Disney has certainly made their mark on the industry of children’s entertainment, and it clearly shows that, with the company providing various generations with their feature films. Of course, I do have my personal favorite and, while some might argue over which ones are the “all-time” greatest, most will agree that Disney animated movies are the stuff of childhood memories that still linger into their adulthood. Of course, the somewhat resurgence of Disney’s signature identity of female princesses, talking animal sidekicks, and musical songs was definitely a welcomed “breath of fresh air” with the release of Frozen, which felt to me that the studio was get back to their roots and sticking to what made some of their past animated hits memorable. And I think that they were right about that. That’s not to say that I didn’t like some of their newer non-traditional releases like Zootopia or Raya and the Last Dragon, but I felt like Frozen (and its 2019 sequel) and Moana were the studios way to harken back to past efforts and embracing their signature identity wholeheartedly, which I think is a step in the right direction and I hope that Disney continues that trend with some of their future projects. Yet, at the same time, I do have to appreciate Disney for branching out of its comfort zone and speaking towards a more modern audience.
This brings me back to talking about Strange World, a 2022 animated feature film and the 61st animated motion picture release from Walt Disney Animated Studios. Giving the amount of success and praise that both Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto released in 2021, I imagined that Disney would continue their current trend of producing more contemporary / modern storytelling for their endeavors, branching off into more cultural representation (a going trend of late in their various projects). Thus, I was kind of surprise when it was announced that their 2022 release was going to a more science fiction adventure premise. It was definitely a curveball, but Disney has done that in the past, with some good reasons behind it. So, I was game for the change and was curious to see what the film (titled Strange World) was going to be about. I do recall that I didn’t hear much about the project after that and it wasn’t until I began to see the film’s movie trailers begin to appear online and in theaters (during the “coming attractions” previews) and I had mixed feelings about the movie. Yes, I did like the animation design that was showcased in the movie’s trailer preview and it looked like it was going to focus more of sci-fi adventurer exploration (hence the name “Strange World”), but I was completely sold on the film, for the trailer preview itself really didn’t catch my interest…. nor did the rest of the feature’s marketing campaign that led up to the theatrical release. I don’t know, I just can’t really put my finger on it as to why I wasn’t super excited to see Strange World. I mean it had all the right ingredients, including previous animated director, solid animation, and great voice cast. I just wasn’t “hyped” to see it. That being said, I did plan on seeing Strange World when it was expected to be theatrically released on November 23rd, 2022, which I saw on that date. I did wait a few weeks before I got my review out for this movie, due to busy work schedule as well as trying to get out other movie reviews that were coming out around that time. Now, I’m finally ready to share my personal thoughts on Disney’s latest animated feature. And what did I think of it? Well…. that’s kind of hard to say as I have mix feelings on the project. Despite having a great style of animation and solid voice cast, Strange World ends up being a hodgepodge endeavor that never really clicks together the right way, with weaker elements and lack a proper world building. It’s not as terrible as some are making it out to be, but it’s far from the studio’s recent memorable hits of Frozen II, Raya and the Last Dragon, and Encanto.
Strange World is directed by Don Hall, whose previous directorial works include several other Disney animated features, including Winnie-the-Pooh, Big Hero 6, and Raya and the Last Dragon. Given his past history endeavors with Disney’s cartoon motion pictures, Hall seemed like the most suitable choice to helm the next animated feature for the studio and to be in somewhat capable hands. In semi-regard to that, he kind of does and I have to give some credit towards Hall’s efforts made on the film, with the director approaching the project with a sense of classic nuances of an old-fashioned adventurer / exploration endeavor. With the 50s / 60s style of comic book adventure opening narration (as well final minute to bookend the movie), Hall makes the whole picture heeding to feel like adventure comic, with flourishes of daring bravery and exploring uncharted areas for the main characters to play around through. It’s a very fun sandbox to play, especially one that is filled with danger and excitement around every turn as Hall showcases this “strange” subterranean underworld both beautiful in its bizarre locales and vistas, while also with terror as almost every creature that lives there wants to harm or disrupt the main exploration characters. It kind of me a little bit of Jurassic Park movies where humans venture into unknown territory where roaming beasts and monsters lurk, ready to prey upon those who come into their domain. Naturally, this brings up that adventurous element where Strange World does actually shine. I do feel that the movie could’ve used a bit more (more on that below) but is perhaps the part of the feature that Hall and his team tries to convey, with Searcher and crew aboard the Venture trying to safety navigate a way through this very surreal and odd new land. It sort of reminded me back when Disney used to have a bit more action-oriented features of yesteryear and I kind of like that notion.
For the film’s story, I did enjoy. Yes, there are plenty of recycled beats, which I will get into the paragraphs below, but I did like the character conflicts within the three generations of the Clade family clan. This does great some great dynamics and clashing personalities / ideals of which Disney is known for, with the usage of identity and “following your own path” rather than a pre-determined one. This is clearly shown in Jaeger, Searcher, and Ethan Clade, finding each one clearly defined in their respective roles and come off with a crystal-clear resolution by the film’s end. Also, Hall does make the film have a very breezy runtime, with the movie clocking in at around 102 minutes (one hour and forty-two minutes) long. This is sort of a “double edge” sword of both good and bad (more on the bad below), but it’s not enough to make the whole animated endeavor quick and easy to get into and get out of rather swiftly…. never really feeling elongated or needlessly pointless as it progresses its narrative. All in all, while not exactly the best endeavor from Disney, I do have to somewhat appreciate Hall’s effort in shaping / helming Strange World into what is…..an animated cartoon film that evokes the sense of adventure / exploration of yesteryear that feels vintage (in a good way) yet speaks to a modern audience of nature and living off the land, which is (again) is a universal understanding to all.
As a minor sidenote to the movie, I did find it quite amusing that many of the characters names are quite unique and different with a sense of sci-fi / fantasy names. Of course, there are characters names like Ethan and Lonnie, but there are a great many of them (i.e., Jaeger, Searcher, Meridian, Caspian, etc.) that evoke a sense of a grandiosity and sense of adventure / exploration, which was what I think Hall and his team were going for.
In the presentation category, Strange World is a very colorful and vibrant feature, with some dazzling animation that is both incredibly detailed and showcasing some of the more bizarre elements of cartoon endeavors. Both are considered to a good and positive notion for the film, with Hall and the various animators on the movie certainly “having fun” by coming up with such oddities and strangeness throughout the narrative’s landscape as the Glade’s expedition teams ventures into the unknown of the subterranean world below their own. Creatures and beings are otherworldly in the movie and are giving very different, despite a few being based off of some type of animals. Thus, I really have to give the animators credit for creating such imaginative creatures throughout Strange World, which do offer up a sense of strangeness throughout. On top of that, the overall animation style looks incredible with a very 50s or 60s sci-fi nuances, which helps build upon the adventure aesthetics that Hall and his team want to convey in the film. Details are very colorful and vivid, which certainly does “pop” in many scenes throughout, while character details are intricate and well-design, with most characters having very distinct features (i.e., massive body, bulbous nose, expressive eyes, etc.) and making them standout from a visual perspective. Thus, I do have to give the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Justin Cram and Mehrdad Isvandi (production design), Larry Wu (art direction), and (again) all the animators for making a very rich and detailed animated movie that, while not be Disney’s best, still looks incredible stunning through its coloring and visual representation. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Henry Jackman, is really good throughout the picture, with (again) a sense of adventure and daring exploration being felt in and out of the musical composition provided as well as the signature style of animated warmth and flourishes.
Unfortunately, Strange World comes up shorter than expected, with the feature having some glaring problematic areas and points of criticisms that are hard to overlook. How so? Well, for starters, the movie doesn’t reach the same type of caliber that Disney has set for itself. Of course, the story beats are there and are clearly defined in the various fields that the studio usually places their signature stamp on, including the dynamics of a family, but Strange World can’t hold a candle to that notion as much as intended to be. There’s a certain type of element that is lacking that doesn’t make the feature hold together as quite as strong as other past endeavors. The movie’s script, which was penned by Qui Nguyen, who also co-directed Strange World alongside Hall, also doesn’t help this particular notion, with the movie, while having a few original ideas, mostly heavily borrows from other similar narratives story plot elements, including Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Avatar, and maybe even a little bit of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. This results in making the movie feel like a “greatest hit” of other ideas, with very “borrowing” material to cobbled together its own iteration. Yes, there are some elements that do work in the feature’s story, yet enough, with the narrative beats being too familiar for their own good and just coming across as lazy writing. In addition to this, the movie’s plot is quite predictable, despite the attempts being made to give its own characteristic and stamp on such nuances of exploration, family, and nature. Again, all those familiar beats and plot points feel lackadaisical in their undertaking, which makes the journey throughout Strange World rather traditional and mundane, with the surprise twists and turns being presented come off as a moot point. Even the big secret behind why the “Pando” crops are dying feels like as that “been there, done that” feeling, with the resolution comes across as bland and sort of vague, despite the attention being sort of “mind blowing”. Heck, even the family dynamics between the three generation of Glade members feels recycled a few times from other properties and doesn’t have the same impact as intended. Thus, the familiarity of Strange World becomes problematic for the feature as well as some formulaic narrative nuances that don’t challenge the film enough to make it memorable.
Another weak part of the movie can be found in its world building or rather lack of world building. Despite the intent of creating a new world (not of our own) as well as new subterranean world below the surface, Strange World’s world building is pretty weak and can’t fully grasp all of the vast nuances and understanding to the world being depicted. Again, given the feature’s very breezy runtime, the movie isn’t allowed to explore such aspects, which has a lot to say about the film’s world, including Avalonia (the inhabitants and the technological advance made by harnessing the power of the “pando” plants) and the odd subterranean world (and the creatures that live there). The movie just needed more time like an additional ten or fifteen minutes for a better understanding the picture’s story and world building scale. More episodic adventure scenes in the subterranean world, maybe for bizarre and odd creatures for the crew of the Venture to encounter, more comprehension of the feature’s “big reveal” moment, more dramatic / emotional amongst the Clade family, and just more out of this particular movie. I appreciate the “leanness” of the picture, especially since some motion picture endeavors out there are often “bloated” with unnecessary subplots, but Strange World needed to be longer to fully encompass everything about its story, characters, and world in one cohesive manner.
In addition, like a lot of recent Disney movies, Strange World sort of kind needed some type of antagonist to battle against throughout the movie. Yes, some of the creatures and beings pose a threat and there are some opposition met by some of the crew members on the Venture ship, but there just seems to be lack of a proper Disney-style villain of which these needed to have. This seems to be a going trend of Disney’s recent features, with the villain of the story (if any) is more of a misunderstood individual and not clearly a classic villain that the studio use to relish. Strange World definitely fits into the category and kind of needed to some type of “big bad” antagonist for the main character to face off against.
Another minor plot of criticisms that I have with Strange World is the now customary “woke” inclusion / representation that Disney has recent began implementing in their various endeavors (live-action movies, animated feature, TV series, etc.), with their 61st cartoon motion picture featuring an inner-racial married couple (Searcher and Meridian) as well as their son (Ethan), who is openly gay and the first LGBTQ+ lead character in an animated Disney / Pixar movie. To be assure, I have nothing against the idea of such inclusions….not in Strange World nor really any other project that Disney has produced over the years with such “forward thinking”. Again, I get it….the world is changing and the studio is “normalizing” the idea of having such representation in their characters….regardless of gender or sexual orientation. So what’s my problem with it? Well, it’s mostly because it feels shoehorned into Strange World and feels kind of awkward….like most of their inclusion representation. Disney has been sort of “beating around the bush” of such notions of inclusions in a variety of narratives for years now, but has never pushed it to the so-called “next step”. I would like to see Disney start to integrate such inclusions and representation more in the main plot of the feature. It doesn’t have to be more of the main focal point of the story, but have a supporting subplot rather than just a very minor character detail. In the case of Strange World, I would’ve done something more in-depth into Ethan’s character and his secret crush with the boy named Diazo, with their awkward flirting go “back and forth” throughout the movie, and culminating in establishing their relationship with each other. It doesn’t have to be the main subject matter, but would’ve been nice to see develop throughout the course of the movie. In the end, I’m not opposed to such forward ideas of inclusion and representations as it really doesn’t bother me, but I think Disney needs to smartly utilize such representation more into the main narrative thread of their respective endeavors, with Strange World’s inclusion nuances feeling a tad “out of place” and just shoehorned in just for the sake of it.
What definitely helps build upon those large points of criticisms is found in the feature’s cast, with the selected talent involved to provide the voices for the Strange World characters definitely have their personalities and distinct performance to make their respective roles fun and energetic. The character themselves can be a bit of a mixed bag, which is disappointing part in a few areas. Perhaps the best character in the movie would have to one of the film’s main primary focus in one Searcher Clade, who is voiced by actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Known for his roles in Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, and Spider-Man: Far from Home, Gyllenhaal isn’t that much accustomed to doing voiceover for animated endeavors, but I think he actually does a terrific job in Strange World, finding the energetic and steadfast voice for Searcher to be quite appealing and likeable right from the get-go. Gyllenhaal brings the right amount of goofy dad vibe as well as the determination in Searcher, who is sets his sights on a clear path towards his objective, even though it may ambiguous getting there. It’s a tried and true Disney-esque character, with plenty of personal problems, setbacks, and triumphs for the character accomplish throughout the narrative. Thus, while the character is somewhat predictable, Gyllenhaal makes for a fun and charismatic performance in Searcher.
The same can be somewhat said in the character of Jaeger Clade, Searcher’s adventurous father who disappeared twenty-five years ago and gets reunited with his son and their expedition into the subterranean world below Avalonia, and who is voiced by actor Dennis Quaid (Frequency and I Can Only Imagine). Like Gyllenhaal, Quaid’s voice and personality effortlessly comes through in his portrayal of Jaeger, with a big voice for a big man, who isn’t afraid of anything and willing to take rise, unlike his son, who is more inclined to play it safe. Thus, the character is straightforward as Jaeger, along with Searcher, deal with their own personal ideas of fatherhood and discovering their own weakness / short sightedness in that regard, with Quaid giving a sense of gravitas as the “seasoned veteran” on the animated project. Behind Gyllenhaal and Quaid, actor Jaboukie Young-White (Fairfax and C’mon C’mon) does quite a good job in the voicework role of Ethan Clade, Searcher’s son and Jaeger’s grandson. Young-White brings the right amount of youthful energy and heartfelt meaning to the feature (as well as his character), which makes Ethan a very likeable and memorable character in Strange World.
Additionally, actor Jonathan Melo (Mama V and Blue Bloods) is presented in the movie as the voice for Diazo, Ethan’s love interest. While the character is relatively minor one in the movie, I think that the character could’ve been easily expanded upon and played a more integral role in the feature (as mentioned above). Still, Melo, for his part, was decent enough in the limited screen time and make for interesting piece in the studio’s mission for inclusion and representation in their endeavors. Other supporting characters, such as Meridian Clade, Searcher’s wife / Ethan’s mom, and Callisto Mal, former explorer to Jaeger Clade and now the President of Avalonia, for some good representation strong and capable women archetype in the movie, with actresses Gabrielle Union (Bring It On and Bad Boys II) and Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill Vol. 1) providing their voices.
The rest of the cast, including actor Karan Soni (Deadpool and Office Christmas Party) as the nerdy member of Venture’s crew named Caspian, actor Alan Tudyk (Frozen and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as a pilot onboard the Venture named Duffie, actress Adelina Anthony (Vida and The Daily War) as the second-in-command of the Venture named Captain Pulk, actor Abraham Benrubi (ER and Park Lewis Can’t Lose) as a member of Venture crew named Lonnie Redshirt, and actor Nik Dodani (Escape Room and Atypical) and actress Francesca Reale (Stranger Things and Haters Back Off) as Ethan’s friends Kardez and Azimuth, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the film. As to be expected, most of these characters are limited by design and only have handful scenes throughout Strange World, yet the acting talent involved are pretty good across the board and lend their talents in their minor supporting roles in the story.
To help save the dying “pando” crops, Searcher Clade and a team of explorers’ venture into the planet’s depths and uncover a whole world that is filled with bizarre creatures as well as Searcher’s long-lost father in the movie Strange World. Director Don Hall’s latest film takes the more “sense of adventure” approach by creating a narrative is complied with exploration and seeing new wonders never seeing before, yet also manages to make a tale surrounding a family of three generations and how they all must come together for a greater good. Despite the movie feeling incomplete with its world-building, hastily organization management, and some weaker elements, the movie still manages to make for a semi-entertaining cartoon jaunt that finds merit within its adventurous exploration nuances, the animation style, a visual presentation, a great score, and some colorful and energetic voice talents. Personally, I thought this movie was good, yet nothing grand. The animation was great, the voice cast was solid across the board, and the characters were amusing, yet something about the movie didn’t feel like it “clicked” the right way, which was mostly due to the narrative borrowing too many ideas for similar plots and not much on its own. As stated before, there’s a lot more to say about the film, which can be frustrating at times, but it was still an enjoyable and entertaining cartoon picture that’s worth the price of admission. Just not the best from Disney. and almost a little bit of a step bac…in my opinion. Thus, my recommendation for this movie would be both a favorable “recommended” one for some and maybe a “iffy choice”, but one might have to lower their expectations for the movie and don’t expect anything “high caliber” from Disney’s recent hits. Unfortunately, Strange World hasn’t been the box office success as intended, with the company expected to lose profits over the feature due to box office results. In the end, while not exactly the absolute best from the “House of Mouse” and feeling like its “playing the hits” of others, Strange World still manages to be a colorful and vibrant animated adventure that’s wholesome and fun and will keep you engage from beginning to end, yet it misses its mark for being a memorable and palpable hit.
3.3 Out of 5 (Recommended / Iffy-Choice)
Released On: November 23rd, 2022
Reviewed On: December 17th, 2022
Strange World is 102 minutes long and is rated PG for action, peril, and some thematic elements